In many churches the prayer of invocation begins the worship service. We begin worship by asking God to be with us. It makes sense.
In the past few weeks, I have encountered my first argument against the prayer of invocation: God is already here among us, so why are we implying otherwise with a prayer of invocation? Much better suited to beginning worship, the argument concludes, would be to begin worship with a prayer of acknowledgement.
This argument/practice also makes sense. Indeed, I think it is appropriate to begin a worship service with a prayer that acknowledges God’s faithful presence. However, this leaves me wondering about the prayer of invocation. Before we agree to scrap it, I think it is worth taking a closer look at it. After all, people of the covenant, old and new, have often called out for God to be present. What positive things are going on when we do so? What do we risk losing if we stop?
- Calling and reaching out to God, praying that God will come and be with us, is a motion that reminds us of our dependence on God. We need God’s constant gift of grace, and if we cease the activity of invoking we risk forgetting this. God becomes something that we possess, something that we need not appeal to, something that acts within the scope of our expectations and desires. It strikes me that in a culture often tempted to describe God or “the spiritual” as “a good feeling inside” or what happens “when we are kind to each other.” God’s presence may be with us at all times, but we do well to remember that this is a gift. And if we know that this is a gift that will not be withdrawn, this is not because we know how things must be, but because we trust that God is faithful.
- It is also worth noting that the Bible does not assume that God is always with us. According to many of the prophets (e.g., Amos 5), God leaves us when we do not live as a holy and just people. A prayer of invocation reminds us of the distance between what we are and what God has called us to be, and that even as God came to us first, we need to come to God. In this way, the prayer of invocation takes on a tint of a prayer of confession. We call out for God to be present in the same way that we recognize our continual need for God to deliver us, even though we also confess that we have already been delivered by God. This understanding is particularly important in a church that often seems to have forgotten that God cannot be a God of love unless God is also a God of judgement.
- Christians must invoke God’s presence in worship because part of being Christian is living with the knowledge that God’s reign is not yet here in full. We are not only a people of Christmas, but also a people of Advent. The world does not fully acknowledge God and God’s ways, and the church is complicit in this, blocking out God. Along with Isaiah, we need to call out to God to rend the heavens and come down. We must invoke God’s peace and love, for peace and love is too often lacking.
- A prayer of invocation beckons us into a worship space in which the Christian life is not passive. Certainly, Christian faithfulness begins and ends with God’s grace and God’s presence. But that is not all there is; we are involved. As the church we need to look for ways to be faithful to the calling we have received, we need to learn the proper ways to receive God’s gift of grace. If it is true that God is present everywhere, not everything is receptive to this presence. As a people of God, we do not simply have God’s presence around us as something to acknowledge. Rather, we desire this presence more fully; and so, we call for it and welcome it.
Perhaps all of this can be accomplished with a good prayer of acknowledgement. But if so, I hope that the church does not lose the language of calling out to God. We need more of God in our lives; let’s keep on asking for it.